Coach Class

As with most endeavours, even Italian post-war coachbuilding, there is no failsafe recipe for success. Particularly when illustrious British marques are involved. 

Bentley T1 Speciale, commissioned from Pininfarina in 1968 by British industrialist, Lord Hanson. (c) bonhams

From today’s perspective, it’s all too easy to get misty-eyed when recalling rather more halcyon periods in the evolution of the bespoke luxury automobile. For today’s coachbuilt cars seem to offer rather less grace than the standard vehicles they are based upon, thus underlining that rarity is no quality in itself. Yet even in the autumn days of traditional coachbuilding, when the arrival of the monocoque body had already spelled the end of the industry as it had existed in its heyday, not every sheetmetal change was for the better.

Not even in the case of Pininfarina, whose reputation surely requires no further elaboration here. The Hanson Pininfarina-bodied Bentley T1 coupé, unveiled in 1968, should have been a delightful cocktail of Anglo-Saxon formal and Italianate casual elegance. Clearly, the intention behind its appearance was to lend it a somewhat more modern appearance than that of the car it’s based upon, thanks to crisper lines, rectangular head and round rear lights, as well as a hint of a tapering fastback rear end.

On paper, this may sound like the ingredients for a most promising ’60s update of the legendary Bentley R Type Continental. In reality, it resembles an expensive dish, served at a restaurant of excellent repute, that doesn’t simply fail to tickle the taste buds, but some of whose ingredients are of less than first-rate quality.

As with the later (series production) Rolls-Royce Camargue, the Hanson Bentley’s problems begin with a weak stance and hence overbodied, underwheeled appearance. Being seemingly based upon a platform one or two sizes too small for its body makes the T1’s fastback roofline appear almost like a mockery – as though Robert Morley had tried to squeeze himself into one of Gianni Agnelli’s dapper suits. The details, such as the light units front and rear, are also executed in rather crude a fashion.

Next to the British ‘base’ car, Pininfarina’s T1 seems rather uncouth. Whereas JP Blatchley’s design, albeit rather old-fashioned at the time, possessed an air of genuine luxury and elegance, the Hanson Bentley comes across like a rush job that clearly didn’t strive to push any envelopes whatsoever.

1969 Mercedes 300SEL 6.3 by Pininfarina. (c)

The same goes for another one-off large coupé, presented one year later – only to an even greater extent. This time, a Mercedes-Benz 300 SEL 6.3 base car was used to create a design that – with all due respect to Pininfarina at the height of its creative and artisanal abilities – must simply be described as quite amateurish.

As with the Bentley, the source-car’s manufacturer also offered a very comely coupé. In fact, it’s rather difficult to imagine a more pleasing blend of bechromed opulence and dignified, lithe elegance than Sindelfingen’s W111 coupé – but one exceedingly well-off Dutch owner of a Mercedes 300 SEL 6.3 clearly thought otherwise, commissioning Pininfarina for a more modern take on a large, luxurious, two-door Mercedes.

The result however reflects upon whoever was in charge of its appearance in the most unflattering manner. As with the Hanson Bentley, the PF 300 SEL 6.3 falls well short of the standards set by its supposedly more mundane donor vehicle. In the Mercedes’ case, the execution of the coupé’s bodywork is of such woeful quality that one has to wonder how it was ever allowed to pass the Pininfarina workshop’s gates, sporting the carrozzeria’s proud signet.

(c) fanmercedesbenz
(c) fanmercedesbenz

With front lights (barely) integrated into blocky recesses, a grille unaligned with them, and featuring a three-pointed star at its centre that looks very lost indeed, the PF 300 SEL’s problems are both of the subtle and blatant variety. Little wonder it was last seen in a rather shabby state, parked in front of an unexceptional car dealership, somewhere in the Netherlands.

Next to Pininfarina’s shameful Mercedes, the third example of Anglo-Italian misapprehansions appears rather accomplished. Which has much to do with the task its creator, Pietro Frua, was presented with by his client: The Italian designer was asked to turn a monumental Rolls-Royce Phantom VI limousine into a contemporary convertible.

While proportions don’t lie and Frua’s Phantom drophead coupé by consequence suffers from being obviously based on an ill-suited architecture; quite in contrast to the Pininfarina coupés, this Turinese designer seemed to be rather more serious and ambitious about his assignment. For despite the obvious Lady Penelope air about it (and a grill of such a vast size, it might present someone at Munich’s Knorrstraße facilities with a decidedly silly idea for the Rolls-Royce Cullinan’s upcoming facelift), the oversized, open-top Phantom almost works.

In terms of stylistic craftsmanship, the Frua Phantom betrays the kind of care and attention absent from Pininfarina’s duo of Crewe-based concoctions. Maybe the exceptional designers at Grugliasco wanted to keep their best ideas for the upcoming Fiat 130 Coupé. Maybe they were too busy with other, more pressing and/or lucrative assignments to pay attention to the British duo, whereas Frua spent two years finessing the oversized Royce. But nevertheless – and even after the passage of five decades – Pininfarina produced minor embarrassments, whereas Frua achieved rather more than what could realistically have been expected.

In either case, these flawed examples of Italian coachbuilding prove that nobody is beyond reproach. Not even Turinese car designers of the 1960s. Moreover, these cars illustrate that whereas modern-era coachbuilt cars tend to be too ornamental, too elaborate for the sake of it, coachbuiling also possessed the capacity of being quite crude and simplistic.

In either case, the lesson to be learned for prospective luxury car owners would also be very simple indeed: Just buy the production model instead.

Author: Christopher Butt

car design critic // runs // contributes to The Road Rat magazine // writes a column for Octane France //

20 thoughts on “Coach Class”

  1. At least the Pininfarina Benz looks better than Mercedes’ own effort on a W100 Coupé for Fritz Nallinger:

    In both the Bentley and the Benz one can see the roots of the Camargue, itself no glorious effort.

    1. They went the wrong way with the “all glass” formula. I’ve tried to re-imagine the Mercedes coupes of the era and I think they would’ve gotten a better result with the formula US Ford uses in the early sixties, especially the Thunderbird era from 1958-66. Take away all the glass and replace it with a more angular and upright hardtop and a wider C-pillar, and there you have it. In essence, replace the roof with a roof from a Ford Thunderbird, and the end result will be a tad more satisfactory.

  2. It’s so difficult to believe that the Phantom convertible came from the design table that gave the world, years earlier, a truly legendary luxury GT, the Volvo P1800.

  3. Good morning, Christopher. My goodness, those coachbuilt cars are a very mixed bag, both in terms of design and execution. Charles, a stalwart DTW reader and commenter, kindly posted this link in his comment on my piece on the Silver Spirit a couple of days ago:

    The website contains a fascinating gallery of Hooper coachbuilt Bentley and Rolls-Royce cars, good, bad and (very often) ugly. What is surprising is the highly variable quality of execution, with inconsistent shut-lines and poorly fitting/fitted details such as lights, trim etc. Readers of a nervous disposition are advised to view the ‘Brunei’ models with particular caution.

    By comparison, this is a masterpiece of design and execution:

    1. Thank you for your kind comment, Daniel.

      Unfortunately, I seem to have a talent for finding awful concept cars and my latest discovery / horror is this Rolls-Royce concept by Vignale.

      It’s odd – a lot of the 50’s / 60’s concepts for Rolls-Royce and other premium marques have an air of the Rootes Group about them – sort of upmarket Hillman Super Minxes gone wrong.

    2. Yikes! You’ve really surpassed yourself with this one, Charles. It looks like a Rolls-Royce that’s being swallowed up by some large 1950’s car.

      Is that a gold commode under the rear seat? Weird…

  4. One of the reasons Frua’s effort looks better than Pininfarina’s is that the Phantom had a separate chassis, whereas the other two were monocoque. This affords much greater flexibility, especially as the “hard points” (eg suspension mountings etc) are all within the chassis. Both the PF cars look too high (and thus blocky) at the front, but if that is where your suspension turret meets the structure you can’t change that without designing a new monocoque and/or suspension system. That said, I think Frua could usefully have taken a hacksaw to the rear end of the Phantom chassis and chopped out a good six inches.

    1. Body-on-frame construction obviously made changes to the Phantom easier, but creating a proper convertible on this was a tall order by any account.

      What the differences in architecture couldn’t affect where the differences in execution of the bodywork details: Surfacing, brightwork et al. These were simply woeful in the Mercedes’ case:

  5. The side and rear view of the Bentley looks like the Ford OSI that I owned 20 years ago…

    1. Ford OSI? That’s a car I hadn’t heard of before, Fred. It’s really rather nice:

      I notice it has tail lights from the Fiat 850. Those circular units really were ubiquitous on coach built and specialist cars back in the 60’s and 70’s. I suppose that was because of their simple shape and the fact that they could be mounted directly onto a flat panel.

  6. I’m personally averse to cars whose boot is longer than its bonnet.
    Most of the ugly examples here thus fail.

    At least the pink monstrosity seems to fulfil a brief.

  7. Defo; a horror all round. But at least I see where I could get a rear lamp cluster for a Lancia 2000HF Coupé.

    1. For the man who needs to carry at least two dead bodies around, Vic.

  8. One must also renember the restraints put down by the client, often in conflict with the coach builder. I would say most of the problems with the cars mentioned comes from particular details specified by the client.

    Above all on the Frua Rolls, the client insisted on the separate chassis, and if the Phantom was the only one available, then by Jove that’s what it gonna be. The client also insisted on keeping the Phantom grille unaltered, therefore Frua had to design a cut into the bumper lowering the grille almost to the ground just to make it fit.

  9. I would say the PF 6.3 is a failed masterpiece. But take away the front and the rear and you have the basis for the C126 SEC coupes from more than a decade later. I would especially like to point out the single curved tumblehome on the sailpanel, cribbing the Chrysler “fuselage” design language almost to the point. The front is a mess, yes, but it also shows of the conflict between what the designer wanted to achieve and the means he had to achieve it. It’s blatantly obvious the designer had really wanted a one off custom front, re-imagining the Mercedes design language and taking it in another direction, but had to make due with off the shelf Mercedes parts trying to plug a square hole with an oblong “cathedral” light. It is a failed design only in the sense the designer was constrained in his direction and wasn’t allowed to go all the way.

    1. “Failed masterpiece” – you must be a diplomat, Ingvar! To me, the car vaults over the elegant 126 coupé and lands squarely on the w140 variant, as stodgy as a dumpling. Strange what we see, sometimes.

  10. It should be noted that, as originally built, the 6.3 coupe PF had a different (not necessarily better) headlight arrangement

    1. I can also see a slight reminiscence to Ken Greenleys “Bentley Project 90” from the mid eighties, especially in the side profile.

  11. According to the Vignale sale notes “Today this special Rolls-Royce continues to exude the distinctive elegance it always has.” Distinctive yes. Elegance, my arse.

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